National too leftist for local members
By Mickie Anderson
The Commercial Appeal
Members of Christ United Methodist Church, Memphis's largest Methodist church, will remain financially faithful to their denominational flock - at least for now.
Upset about their belief that national United Methodist leaders seem to be leaning too far to the political left, the church's administrative board debated Monday evening whether to redirect money ordinarily sent to denomination headquarters to other projects.
The group, representing the church's 6,700 members, voted 80-36 to pay almost $72,000 to the national denomination, but said it expects answers from United Methodist leaders about several church stances.
The $72,000 represents about 8.5 percent of the $846,000 the church will give the national church.
Three weeks ago, East End United Methodist Church in the West Tennessee town of Savannah became the first Tennessee church to vote to withhold money from the United Methodist church, saying it wants the denomination to make clear its stand on homosexuality.
Tensions among Methodists over sexual issues have risen in recent years, but fireworks exploded in March when a church trial acquitted a Nebraska pastor who performed a commitment ceremony for two lesbians.
Some local church members also were upset when a high-ranking United Methodist leader waded into the "partial-birth abortion" controversy, writing a letter on behalf of the church urging President Clinton to veto legislation banning the procedure.
A 10-member task force at Christ United spent the last year reviewing church apportionments. While most on the task force agreed that United Methodist leaders have swayed left of local church members' comfort zone, they didn't agree on what to do about it.
Six members of the task force voted to redirect the money to less-controversial United Methodist projects, while four said breaking church rules by not paying the apportionments would be a poor way to teach denomination leaders a lesson.
Pastor Bill Bouknight said he sided with the six who favored withholding funds from the national denomination.
When it became clear that neither side could get a strong majority, Bouknight said church members worked to find a consensus. They called it "The Barnabas Plan."
The church's administrative board adopted the plan late Monday night. Christ United members made no suggestion during Monday's debate about breaking ranks with the United Methodist denomination.
"The Barnabas Plan clearly says our national denomination has serious problems, and it lists some ways we can help resolve those problems," Bouknight said.
The plan notes that uneasiness among some of Christ United Methodist's members didn't just happen overnight.
"The concerns regarding the deviation of some . . . from traditional Wesleyan doctrine, and the corresponding deviation from the church's positions on homosexuality and the sanctity of life are not new concerns," the plan reads.
The plan calls for church members to continue to pay apportionments until the denomination's national gathering in 2000.
"If, after a reasonable period of time, Christ Church sees neither an adequate response nor substantial improvement by the denomination and our efforts to renew the denomination have failed, the congregation will seriously consider using the redirection of apportionments or other methods to restore the denomination," the plan reads.
Until then, the plan calls for local church members to become involved in overall policy-making for the denomination, to ask for answers from denomination leaders about why the church seems to be straying from traditional doctrine, and to push for accountability for clergy who don't uphold basic church doctrine.
It was unclear Monday evening whether Bouknight will face trouble from United Methodist leaders over his decision to side with church members who wanted to redirect apportionments.
"There's a difference of opinion about whether I have a right to take the position I have taken," Bouknight said.
Bishop Kenneth Carder, who represents all United Methodists in West Tennessee and western Kentucky, couldn't be reached. Christ United's strongly worded Barnabas Plan isn't the first time a large Memphis church has defied denominational leaders.
In 1974, Central Cumberland Presbyterian split from the mother church and became Central Church after members - who preferred a literal interpretation of the Bible - felt the denomination had strayed from its teachings.
In 1989, Second Presbyterian Church broke from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and joined Evangelical Presbyterian Church, concluding that the first denomination allowed too much personal interpretation of the Bible and had a pro-choice stance on abortion, although denomination leaders disputed the claims.
To reach reporter Mickie Anderson, call 529-6510 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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